Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Majestic Mystery


Nearly two years ago, Paul Lukas at Uni Watch made note of a wonderful photograph of Babe Ruth with Al Devormer, both wearing natty Yankees sweaters. (For those unfamiliar with Devormer, Bill Nowlin has written an excellent biography of him as part of the SABR Baseball Biography Project. For those unfamiliar with Ruth ... uhmm... really?)


Legendary Auctions

The print was made available at Legendary Auctions in March of 2012 and ultimately sold for just over $500. Beyond the identifications of the two ball players, there was no other information about the photograph. I thought it would be fun to research the image, but it wasn't until recently that I had a chance to do so.

The Ruth/Devormer photo can be found at various locations on the web, the best version I could find being this one from The Real BSmile Tumblr page:


The Real BSmile

Back in 1992, Megacards issued a 165-baseball card set called "The Babe Ruth Collection" with card #123 featuring a detail from the photograph:


Zeprock - Herb Pennock Gallery

Alas, the card misidentifies Devormer as Herb Pennock. As it turns out, handwriting on the reverse of the auctioned photograph suggests that this may have been a common mistake:


Legendary Auctions

So what can we learn from this photograph?

First, a quick check at baseball-reference.com tells us that Ruth and Devormer played together for the Yankees during 1921 and 1922. Of course, there is also the strong possibility that the photograph was not taken during the regular season, so spring training or post-season barnstorming tours may also be possibilities. No matter the location, it seems quite likely the photo was taken in either 1921 or 1922.

Second, as noted by Paul Lukas, the sweaters are wonderful. Exactly when the Yankees first adopted this particular style of sweater is unclear, though they were certainly in use by 1923. In fact, Ruth (at left) and his teammates can be seen wearing them in this photograph taken at Opening Day of Yankee Stadium, April 18, 1923:


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,  LC-DIG-ggbain-35768

Paul also pointed out the sign above Ruth's head:



It features the logo of AT&T, first adopted by the company at the turn of the century:


Bell System Memorial

This particular version of the company's logo was phased out in 1921, though the old logo would continue to be used on existing signage for years. Thus, this sign does little to help determine a date or location for the photograph.

The license plate seen on the car at right provides another enticing clue:



Though specific details are difficult to discern, we can see that the plate features dark-colored numbers on a light-colored (but not white) background, and the first two digits appear to be slightly separated from the latter digits. How many license plates from the early 1920s had this design/color scheme? Well, thanks to the License Plates of the United States of America web site and a good deal of "grunt work," just a few matches for states and years emerged as possible matches:

  • Arkansas - 1922
  • Kansas - 1921
  • Minnesota - 1923
  • Missouri - 1920
  • North Carolina - 1920
  • North Dakota - 1922

While it's certainly possible that the automobile may have had out-of-state plates, it is more likely that the plates correspond to the location of the picture.

Note that New York is not on the list, as the Empire State's license plates from the early 1920s always featured white lettering on a dark background. In fact, other than Missouri, where two clubs played in St. Louis, the home state of each of the sixteen major league clubs had license plates that did not match the above design elements. Was the shot taken in St. Louis, when the Yankees were in town to play the Browns? If so, the plate is a year out of date, because we've already determined the photograph was taken in either 1921 or 1922.

What about spring training? In 1921, the Yankees held spring training in Shreveport (LA) and the following year in New Orleans (LA). But, Louisiana's plates did not use a numbering scheme that featured the first two digits separated from the rest of the numbers.

The license plate clues seem to eliminate the most likely locations ... except for one. In 1921 and 1922, in the weeks prior to the Yankees' spring training in Louisiana, the club held special "preliminary workouts" in Hot Springs, Arkansas. This pre-pre-season venue is often overlooked, but the Boston Globe of February 21, 1921, noted that "Babe Ruth left snow-covered New York today for Hot Springs, Ark., where he will start training for another attack on his home run record." And the New York Times of February 16, 1922, stated "Babe Ruth informed the Yankees yesterday that he will leave for Hot Springs next Monday to join the small squad of players there for preliminary workouts."

While Ruth attended both the 1921 and 1922 sessions at Hot Springs, Devormer did not. We know this, because the Los Angeles Times of February 26, 1921 noted that "Al Devormer ... has been sent to the New York Americans, and will join them in Shreveport." But the following year, the New York Times of February 20 stated "[Waite] Hoyt ... will begin preliminary work at Hot Springs on Wednesday. They will join Everett Scot and Al Devormer, who already have made their appearance at the Arkansas resort."

So we have established that both Devormer and Ruth were in Hot Springs prior to spring training in 1922. Additionally, our photograph shows a license plate with design elements consistent with those used in Arkansas that same year. These leads are promising, but can we determine with certainty that the location is indeed Hot Springs?

In February of 1922, Ruth went to Hot Springs as a hold out. He spent most of his time playing golf and relaxing in the rejuvenating waters on Bathhouse Row. In an effort to ink the Bambino's name to a contract, Colonel Tillinghast Huston, part-owner of the Yankees, traveled to Hot Springs, staying at the Eastman Hotel. The Binghamton Press of March 4 gave further details:

The Colonel was anxious to rehash the negotiations that the pair had gone into several days ago, negotiations that undoubtedly had not met the approval of [the other Yankees part-owner] Colonel Ruppert in New York. A wire received from his partner the day before had forcibly enlightened Colonel Huston as to that.

As for divulging the contents of the Ruppert message, again he was a stone image. Huston couldn't hide his displeasure nor his concern over the new turn of affairs in the case of Ruth vs. 1922's stipend.

The waters boiled some more when Ruth repeated the silent rebuff of Monday by golfing while the Colonel fretted in his den. Huston has been steaming some---quite some. Unable to bear watching and waiting last night, Huston sought Ruth at the latter's hotel. Ruth with most of the other Yankees, was attending a very late dance.

Huston had no sooner left the Majestic hotel when baseball's leading man came through the front door.
So Huston was staying at the Eastman Hotel, while Ruth (and other Yankees) were at the Majestic. Pictures of the Eastman Hotel do not show features similar to those seen in our photograph, but take a close look at this image of the Majestic from 1910:


Hot Springs Arkansas Historical Baseball Trail - The Majestic Hotel

Note the various columns in the highlighted version of the Ruth /Devormer photograph below:



The green arrows (1, 2, 3, 4) point to columns near the hotel building and (A and B) near the street. Note that only a small portion of the base of column A is visible in the photo. Note also that arrow 1 is actually pointing to a pair of columns that are situated close to one another, as is the case with arrow B. It is unclear in this photo if the other columns are also actually "doubles." (Those are street lights behind Devormer, not weight-bearing columns.) The red arrow points to a dark patch on the lower portion of column B. (Another similar patch can be seen on the building-side of column 1.)

Now compare these features with those seen in the highlighted version of the Majestic photo:



Both images show the same arrangement of columns 1-4 and A-B (all of which we can now see are "doubles"). And both images show the dark patch on column B, as pointed out by the red arrow. Clearly the images are showing the same building. The blue arrow in the lower photo points to the exact spot where Babe Ruth and Al Devormer are seen standing in the upper photo. (The street lights are missing from the earlier Majestic photo, but no doubt those were added afterwards.)

According to the Racine (WI) Journal-News of February 22, "Babe Ruth will arrive here Wednesday [February 22]. Al Devormer, of the Yankees, and Cecil Causey, Bill Ryan and Earl Smith of the Giants, arrived here Saturday [February 18]." And the Bradford (PA) Era of March 8, 1922, reported that "Mike McNally, Al Devormer and J. Franklin 'Home Run' Baker broke camp here today [story dated March 7] and started for New Orleans to join the main squad of the New York Americans. Babe Ruth, Waite Hoyt, Carl Mays and the other Yankees in training here had set no definite time for their departure." Thus, Devormer and Ruth were together in Hot Springs from February 22 through March 7, 1922.

Finally, a check through some newspapers from this time frame revealed the following undated image published in the New York Tribune of March 5, 1922, and found under the headline "Snapshots of Giant and Yankee Players at Hot Springs Training Camp":



So, thanks to the presence of a blurry license plate and a few uniquely placed columns, we've determined that the photo of Babe Ruth and Al Devormer was taken in front of the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in late February or early March of 1922.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks, this is great stuff. Wouldn't it be fascinating to know who took the picture. If only the Tribune article provided more info (like the source of the photo).

    p.s. In the first paragraph, should the 2nd hyperlink go to Devormer's biography on the SABR site instead of his Baseball Reference page?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fantastic detective work. Nicely done.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Superb research & article! Nearly half of all Hall of Famers trained in Hot Springs, something a team of baseball historians from around the country, led by local official Steve Arrison, has comprehensively documented and commemorated with the Hot Springs Baseball Trail. It's a wondrous site to visit - especially so for baseball researchers. ... Here's a link to its plaques: http://www.hotspringsbaseballtrail.com/see-the-trail/babe-ruth/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Tim. Yes, the "Hot Springs Baseball Trail" web site is wonderful and was helpful for this research, as well as for another blog I will be posting soon.

      Delete
  4. Tom,

    Great article and I'm glad that you found my (BSmile) edit the easiest to see the details in the photo. I do have an alternate photo that was snapped a second later that's hand labeled as being from Hot Springs. I made an animated gif of it that I'll be posting soon.

    Cheers!
    ~Bruce

    ReplyDelete
  5. I also discovered that the Majestic is currently abandoned, but there are plans to restore it: http://www.abandonedar.com/the-majestic-hotel/. There have been significant modifications to the front facade.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Here it is, animated:

    http://therealbsmile.tumblr.com/post/72656914538/babe-al-in-the-best-sweaters-ever-animated

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bruce - Thanks so much. That's awesome!

      Delete
    2. Thanks Tom!
      Again, great article...

      Delete
  7. Awesome! Al DeVormer is my great great Uncle. I have this card as well as a print of the photo. There has never been a question in my mind about it being him as opposed to Pennock. I'm printing this story to display at home with the rest of his memorabilia that I own. Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
  8. A great piece of detective work AND a great fashion statement!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hey Tom - really nice. Love the colored arrows!

    Mark_F

    ReplyDelete
  10. This photo appeared in the May 1949 American Seating Co. magazine,where Al was working as a gate guard.The caption reads "wearing the famous NY of the New York Yankees,the late Babe Ruth and "Oppie" De Vormer posed this picture in 1922 during spring training in Hot Springs Arkansas. I have a fine cover photo of Al taken in 1949 and an article. I will send them to anyone who wants them..my email is rbahowell@charter.net...

    ReplyDelete
  11. In the highlighted image of the hotel, you can make out a blurry white area that is likely the telephone sign - near the green #1.

    Excellent work and very fun to read!

    ReplyDelete